Concupiscence: Sin and the Mother of Sin

This essay was published originally in Modern Reformation 10 (2001).

Introduction

In recent years, the study of virtue has experienced a renaissance.1 While we are recovering our classical grammar of virtue, we should also to recover our vocabulary of vice as well. Concupiscence is among our choicest words to be recovered. Because of the great influence of Augustine, it has traditionally been associated closely with sexual desire, even within marriage. Its range of meaning, however, is broader. Derived from the verb Latin concupisco, “to lust for worldly things,” the noun concupiscentia is a word found many times in the Latin Bible (Vulgate). From there, it entered English in the early 14th century, but has fallen out of use as the Authorized Version (1611) has lost its influence on the language.

Concupiscence in Scripture

In the Latin Bible the “Tombs of Desire” (Kibroth Hataavah) prepared for those who craved food other than that which the Lord provided (Numbers 11:34-35) was rendered the “Tombs of Concupiscence” in the Vulgate. In Psalm 62:10 the Vulgate used the verb concupisco to translate the expression “set not your heart” (on riches). Among the seven vices which the Lord hates is lustful desire (concupiscat) for the beauty of the adulteress Folly (Proverbs 6:16, 25).

According to the Apostle Paul, concupiscence is the result of the fall and the quintessential illustration of the danger of the Law to sinners. In Romans 7:7, 8 concupiscentia translates the Greek noun epithumia or “coveting” (NIV) and “coveteous desire” (NIV). Following the Vulgate, the AV translates epithumia as “concupiscence.” Without the Law “I would not have known what concupiscence was.”2 In Galatians 5:17 it translates the Greek verb “to desire” (epithumeo) in the clause, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the [Holy] Spirit.” In Colossians 3:5 Paul lists “evil concupiscence” as one of those “earthly members” to be put to death and warns believers not to participate in the “lust of concupiscence” (1 Thessalonians 4:5; AV). The Apostle John warns against the transitory “concupiscence of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) which he contrasts with God’s eternal will (2:17).

So far it is clear from the Scriptures that concupiscence is sin, but according to James, it is more than that, it is also the seminary (seedbed) of sin. He uses an obstetrical metaphor to describe the psychological and moral process of sinning.

each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire (concupiscence), he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after concupiscence has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:14-15, NIV).

For James, concupiscence is our fallen inclination to sin , such that our own corrupt hearts and wills are the authors of sin and it is them we must blame and not God. Concupiscence (original sin) conceives actual sin and actual sin brings death.

Three chapters later James fires a salvo at his congregation when he says, that the source of their in fighting is their concupiscence (4:1). He continues, “You lust (L. concupiscitis; Gk. epithumeite) and you have not, you murder and desire.” Rather than praying, despite the futility of their concupiscence, they pursue it even by taking fellow Christians to court (4:2). Because of their corrupted desires, God does not grant their requests when they do pray. It is not as if, however, if they could somehow suspend their concupiscence, God would suddenly begin answering their prayers. Rather, their concupiscence is only more evidence of the fact of their friendship with the world (4:4) and that they do not have true, saving faith (James 2:14-26).

According to James, not all concupiscence is evil. It is not that we should not have intense desires. Indeed the God the Holy Spirit who “dwells within us” does precisely that (concupiscit Spiritus), but he does not desire the sorts of things we do, but rather he desires piety and holiness (4:5). Therefore God the Spirit gives us greater grace and resists the arrogance demonstrated in concupiscence (4:6). Christ confessors ought to stop behaving like rank pagans. They ought to repent and believe, submit to Christ and resist the Devil. Paradoxically, spiritual strength is not found in fulfilled desires, but in abandoning them for Christ’s sake.

Concupiscence in Christian Theology

Tertullian (c.160-c.225) argued that the root of concupiscence is idolatry.3 In a letter encouraging Eustochium to continue her chaste (monastic) life, Jerome (c.345–420) said that Daniel (Daniel 1.8) had refused to eat the bread of desire or “drink the wine of concupiscence.”4

St. Augustine (354-430) expressed his mature views in the treatise, On Marriage and Concupiscence (419) written against the Pelagians.5 Under the influence of neo-Platonism Augustine interpreted Paul’s teaching on the “Spirit” and “flesh” in terms of being (ontology) rather than as ethical and eschatological categories.6 Though he denied any “carnal concupiscence” before the fall and he considered it the “law of sin” (Romans 7:23), he also associated it very closely with sexual desire.7 Baptism, “the laver of regeneration”
(Titus 3:5), washes away original sin and the guilt of concupiscence, but in this fallen world, the act of concupiscence remains, even among the regenerate.8 The “evil of concupiscence” may be tamed for procreation, but even in marriage it brings shame when its passions run hot.9

According to Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-1274) humans were created good, with all the virtues, but because we are creatures and material we necessarily have “lower powers” or “appetites.”10 Even before the fall, these powers were only subject to the soul, even before the fall, only by a “super added gift” (donum super additum) of grace. He says, “even before sin ” man “required grace to obtain eternal life.”11 From the beginning, before the fall, Adam had within his soul, certain lower powers, one of which (concupiscence) was “the craving for pleasurable good” and this desire itself arises from natural, lower appetites.12 Thomas reasoned this way because he presupposed a sort of continuum of being between God and man, with God having complete being and man have relatively less. In short, for Thomas, concupiscence is the result of being human and was the precondition for sin even before the fall.

The Reformation not only reformed the doctrine of justification, but also moral theology. Against the prevailing medieval and Roman view, the Protestants denied that we fell because we were human. Rather, as the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) taught in Q. 6, we were created “in righteousness and true holiness, that we might rightly know God our creator, heartily love him and live with him in eternal blessedness.” Thus the First Adam needed no grace before the fall. Grace is for sinners, not for the sinless. The Protestant theologians consistently defined concupiscence as a post-fall phenomenon. Among the children of the first Adam, concupiscence is both an actual sin and the pre-condition or proclivity to sin.13

Unlike Aquinas, who restricted concupiscence to the “sensual appetite,” Calvin argued that it affects the whole of fallen man.

that everything which is in man, from the intellect to the will, from the soul even to the flesh, is defiled and pervaded with this concupiscence; or, to express it more briefly,  that the whole man is in himself nothing else than concupiscence (Institutes 2.1.8).

Thinking about the deadly mixture of God’s Law and our sin, Calvin rejected any idea of sinless perfection in this life.

if we go back to the remotest period, we shall not find a single saint who, clothed with a mortal body, ever attained to such perfection as to love the Lord with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and, on the other hand, not one who has not felt the power of concupiscence (Institutes, 2.7.5).

Unlike Augustine, Calvin did not necessarily associate concupiscence with sexual desire. For Calvin, concupiscence is nothing more than a comprehensive synonym for sin.

The Ethics of Concupiscence

Concupiscence is a violation of the eighth and tenth commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 110) says,

110. What does God forbid in the eighth Commandment?

God forbids not only such theft and robbery as are punished by this magistrate, but God views as theft also all wicked tricks and devices, whereby we seek to get our neighbor’s goods, whether by force or by deceit, such as unjust weights, fraudulent merchandising, measures, goods, coins usury, or by any means forbidden of God; also all covetousness and the misuse and waste of His gifts.

Considered according to its first use, the Law condemns all of us as concupiscent, covetous, thieves. The Gospel is that Christ Jesus, the Second Adam has actively obeyed this law for concupiscent sinners and his justice is imputed to all those who believe.

For those who have been justified sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, the Law has a third use: as the moral norm for the Christian life. Those who have been redeemed should not be marked by sinful desire. In this regard, it is striking that the Heidelberg Catechism focuses on our commercial life. If there is any area where American Christians have been prone to excuse themselves from God’s Law it is in the area of business. Ministers who address matters of commerce are likely to be accused of meddling rather than preaching.

Put positively, there are certain virtues which Christians must cultivate through the use of the means of grace (Word and Sacrament). The Heidelberg Catechism says:

111. But what does God require of you in this commandment?

That I further my neighbor’s good where I can and may, deal with him as I would have others deal with me, and labor faithfully, so that I may be able to help the poor in their need.

Christians should be identified with utter honesty in all business dealings and by the proper use of God’s gifts. By its nature, concupiscence makes others into mere vehicles for self-fulfillment. The modern corporate business culture often makes concupiscence into a virtue by calling it “personnel management.”

Christian morality has been profoundly influenced by the corporate culture. Pastors are too often rewarded not for proclaiming faithfully the Law and the Gospel, but for being good CEO’s. In their meetings they do not often discuss Biblical exegesis or theology, rather, they tend to compare the size of their congregations. Ministry done for self-aggrandizement and by deceit is concupiscence.

The root of this sin is revealed even more clearly by the tenth commandment which forbids us from “the least inclination” against God’s Law and requires that “with our whole heart we continually hate all sin and take pleasure in all righteousness.”14 As we have seen from Scripture, concupiscence is about inclinations as much as it is about actions. Just as we need Christ’s justice imputed to us, we also need a daily renewal of our affections, flowing from which should be satisfaction with Christ and his mercies.

Conclusion

Concupiscence is a confusion of the two kingdoms. We live and fulfill our callings in both, but one is eternal and the other is not. As citizens of the heavenly kingdom (Philippians 3:20) we must also acknowledge that we have too often replaced the virtue of selflessness with the vice of concupiscence. With the help of grace, let us repent daily of our concupiscence and desire instead to be so governed by the “Word and Spirit that we submit always more and more” to Christ.15


[1] See Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue : A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd edn. (South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1984); Oliver O’ Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd edn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994); David Wells, Losing our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

[2] On this passage Calvin says, “The recesses in which concupiscence lies hid are so deep and tortuous that they easily elude our view; and hence the Apostle had good reason for saying, ‘I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet'”  (Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), 2.7.6.

[3] De idolatria, cap. 1. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. A. Roberts et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1986), 3.61.

[4] Letters, 22.9. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 6.26

[5] See The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. P. Schaff (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1983), 5.263–308.

[6] On Marriage, 1.18, 35.

[7] On Marriage, 1.18,25,34.

[8] On Marriage, 1.20–22, 28, 29.

[9] On Marriage, 1.27.

[10] Summa theologiae, 1a, 95. Art. 1, Art. 3

[11] ST 1a 95. Art. 4, reply to obj. 1

[12] Summa theologiae, 1a 2ae Q. 30, Art. 4; ST 1a. 81, Art. 1

[13] See the Apology of the Augsburg Confession in T. G. Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 101.7. See also Luther’s Larger Catechism, §222–52.

[14] Heidelberg Catechism Q.113.

[15] Heidelberg Catechism Q. 123.